Between Fact and Fiction

Image: Steven Pressfield

Peruse the shelves at any bookstore and one section sure to be well stocked is for books on writing. There are notable titles, from rule books such as Elements of Style to the inspirational and craft-oriented Naming the World, that are well suited to equipping writers with the tools to put their words on a page as effectively as possible.

There are other types of writing books, though, that pull back the curtain of what it is like to write professionally. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one that stands out, and so is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing endure as being entertaining and useful.

Add to the list two more worthy reads. These recent autobiographical books hew to the “show, don’t tell” adage and reveal the stories behind their authors’ lives: Steven Pressfield’s The Knowledge and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. While these books are rooted in the past, their value to future-minded writers is in understanding the importance of personal stories in creating inspiring characters and credible settings perched on the knife edge between fact and fiction. This is perhaps even more important in tales that can be easily overrun with technology and fantasy.

Steven Pressfield is a prolific writer, whose work spans historical and speculative fiction to some of the most useful books on writing and the creative process around (The War of Art, Turning Pro). He is unafraid to acknowledge the importance of discipline and purpose in writing, while being open to the near-magical inspiration that helps readers get as close to characters as possible without sharing a table with them. Watch an Art of the Future Project Google Hangout with Steven Pressfield.

The Knowledge is a fictionalized autobiography depicting a young cab-driving writer in New York during the 1970s, who is torn between an unfinished manuscript, competing love interests and a hunger for justice with a side of adrenaline. In Pressfield’s description it is a “Too Close To True Novel.” This is all set in and around the Manhattan that lies underneath the layers of gold put down by the global finance industry during the past two decades, when greed was cruder and villains sometimes tried to atone for their wrongdoing.

It was a time without Snapchat or PlayStation, but distraction – albeit heroic — abounded for an aspiring writer. “I told the Turk when we met in his office that I had gotten laid off from a job in advertising. This is true. But my two main obsessions have nothing to do with the ad biz. The first is writing. The second is managing a band,” Pressfield writes. The book is worth reading because it is a frontline narrative of the fight against one of the most powerful forces in any creative life – what Pressfield calls “resistance.” Resistance is anything that gets in the way of doing the work of writing. It might be a sick child, money, the day job, a loved one. In The Knowledge, it’s everything from a wayward cat to a gangster’s wife to a rock band run amok in Harlem. The lesson is simple, but profound: you can’t control what form resistance takes, only how you respond. Keep typing.

Reading le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel is a more surreal experience because it is straight autobiography told with a lifetime perspective from one of the most intriguing and effective novelists of our time. “These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?” he writes. The same might be said for a spy’s accounting of a lifetime passion for deceit and truth. But the tales of living with a larger-than-life con man father and le Carré’s preternatural transition from active member of Britain’s intelligence services inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to its foremost fictional chronicler would be hard to believe were it not all described with such humble veracity.

The foundation upon which le Carré built his writing life is unlike any other, and perhaps the only response that he had to a youth that had him alternately studying at elite schools in Switzerland and chasing down his father’s debts in France. His Cold War novels featuring the rumpled and ruthless MI6 spymaster George Smiley, as well as other legends like Jerry Westerby, gave way to a series of dark tales about commercial exploits and profiteering in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the moral traps America and Britain stumbled into during the post-9/11 Long War.

Throughout his career, le Carré went to great lengths to understand the characters in his story from their perspective. As he recounts in The Pigeon Tunnel, that might mean a surreptitious meeting with Yasser Arafat or a late-night club audience with gangsters during the 1990s in the former Soviet Union. For writers, le Carré underscores the value of research, up close and not from library stacks or behind a Web browser. At the same time, he is honest about his shortcomings in trying to get a story right, such as learning too late about a key geography feature in Hong Kong that he was not able to verify until he actually travelled there – after The Honourable Schoolboy manuscript was written. Moreover, he spent the Cold War writing about the Soviet Union without travelling to Russia until 1987. Yet he never let that stop him from getting inside the minds of its fiercest protectors in the intelligence services. He could do this because he understood the tension between deception and duty that ruled his own life. A new novel due out later this year, A Legacy of Spies, brings back George Smiley to deal with this very question.

As both books show, the line between fact and fiction is thin within individual narratives. These are the stories – and lies – we tell ourselves about where we have been and where we think we are going. When it comes to writing about the future, understanding that personal story and its influence on a writer’s view of what is possible, is vital.